Art of the Free and Brave

Art of the Free and Brave

A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York, to which her distant parents considered sending her.


A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York, to which her distant parents considered sending her. The visitors were shown a chapel, no longer greatly used for devotional purposes, but deemed a sight worth seeing. The child was shaken by a picture of Jesus, bleeding and nailed to the cross. “What have they done to that poor man?” she asked, in pained incredulity. I somehow thought of her response to what is after all a standard image in the Western artistic canon when I saw a sign that the Whitney Museum has placed at the admissions desk to Biennial 2000: “Sections of the exhibition present artwork or other material that may not be appropriate for some viewers, including children.” Nothing on view could possibly have the impact on a sensitive child of a routine depiction of Christ’s unimaginable agony. Such a warning sign might far more suitably be placed outside any of the West’s great museums, where images of cruelty and torment are found on every corner. People lined up to buy cappuccino and biscotti at one of the Metropolitan Museum’s convenient coffee bars wait patiently beneath the altogether inappropriate sculpture by Carpeaux of Dante’s Ugolino, devouring his children. Imagine if it were learned that the Whitney was showing a statue of a guy eating his kids!

The fact that the museum regards it as necessary or prudent to post warnings at the threshold of a playful and largely friendly display of contemporary art is an emblem of how fearful of the art of our time we have been made by the forces of artistic repression in our society. It is for just this reason that I find it difficult to be especially upset by Hans Haacke’s widely deplored installation, Sanitation, in which declarations by various politicians, hostile to contemporary art, are lettered on the wall. The lettering, as the media have made it impossible for anyone not to know, is in the spiky Fraktur in which the Third Reich posted its own proclamations. Though as a result Haacke has been charged by some with “trivializing the Holocaust,” it cannot be denied how central a role artistic suppression has played in all the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. “Hans always goes too far!” someone said–but the presence of the little warning sign at the threshold of the show is internally related to the messages in and of Haacke’s work. There is no internal connection, on the other hand, between any other work I can think of in the show and the warning on the sign, which can only be interpreted as a gesture of deference to the politicians Haacke has quoted.

I wished that there were somehow an internal connection between the sign and the witty work Banner Yet Wave, which the Whitney commissioned from Kay Rosen, in lieu of a banner on its facade. It refers to a banner, and indeed to the only banner with an identity in common American consciousness–the Star Spangled Banner, about which, at the beginnings of baseball games, sopranos always ask whether it yet waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Jasper Johns’s celebrated triplet of American flags, which the museum used as a logo for its exhibition “The American Century,” perhaps deserves a rest. It appears in two of the works on view–one of them an ant farm by Yukinori Yanagi (“Blurring the distinction between art and entomology,” the solemn catalogue might say), the other Sanitation itself (in which the smallest of the superposed flags has a turned-down corner, like a napkin). Rosen selected certain letters from the phrase “banner yet wave” and distributed them, white on red rectangles, across the stepped tiers of the building’s facade, as if notes on musical staves. A alone on the top stave, A NER on the next one down, BA YE below that, ET WA below that and AVE at the bottom, to the sign’s right. Sign, Sanitation and Banner Yet Wave constitute an unintended political installation–and we may as well enlist the free, brave artists of the rest of the show as a fourth component, collectively answering Yes! to the anthem’s question.

A fifth component might be required to give us a full picture of the state of our art, namely the way the Biennial is represented in the media. Modern art has made good copy since the Armory Show of 1913 handed reporters an irresistible opportunity to crack up their readership–or to appall it–with the antics of artistic nutcakes. Biennial 2000 is not an American “Sensation,” and one almost felt sorry for the disconsolate cameramen prowling the press opening in unrewarded pursuit of visual scandals to spice up the evening news. Haacke’s piece was hardly more sensational in content than the editorial pages of most newspapers when they deplored Mayor Giuliani’s attack on the Brooklyn Museum. Lisa Yuskavage, who paints young women meditating upon their own swelling bodies, provided perhaps the nearest thing to a piquant image with a woman in profile, showing part of a bare breast. Cynics might wonder whether the selection committee might not have gone out of its way to render its warning empty–but in fact Biennial 2000 comes closer than any of its recent predecessors in showing the way the art world of its moment really is. Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers. Probably even the artists of “Sensation” were bent less on shocking the populace than in pleasing the owner/collector Charles Saatchi. When a reporter asked Chakaia Booker, a handsome black woman in an elaborate headdress, standing proudly in front of her work, whether it bothered her that Hans Haacke had taken all the attention away from the other artists, she replied that she did not think that Haacke had. Her work is an immense and imposing wall-piece of worn and twisted rubber tires, artfully arranged. Why had he not asked her to explain the work, and especially the relation to it of its title, Homage to Thy Mother (Landscape)? Is it a landscape of devastation and ruin, which, even so, the artist has managed to make into something intricate and powerful, swept by pulsing rhythms and graceful arabesques? Hence an allegory of art’s transformative powers?

If one looks at the art through the clarifying lens of the ample wall texts–or listens through the headsets the museum distributes free of charge, to what the artists themselves have to say about their own work–the evidence is overwhelming that most of the art has a certain high moral and intellectual purpose. The artists portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things. It is as if the works exist on two levels–the level of object and the level of argument, and the wall texts–or catalogue entries–assist us in grasping what the work is through explaining what the object means. Often the distance between object and argument is so wide that without the text we would badly misread the object. This is not that different from traditional art as one might suppose. Think, for example, of how little a realistic seventeenth-century crucifixion tells us about the meaning of the object it shows or why it is appropriately hung in chapels. Who would know–who really could understand by means of visual perception alone–that the twisted figure is redeeming through physical suffering the taint of original sin humanity until then allegedly carried? The meaning of much of the work is at just such a level of abstractness, relative to the object intended as its vehicle. In this respect, contemporary and traditional art have a great deal more in common with each other than either has with Modernist art, which sought to convey its meaning by visual means alone–so much so that with such work as Matisse’s or Cézanne’s, the very presence of wall texts was considered supererogatory. The difference between traditional and contemporary art is that with the former, a certain common culture enabled viewers to know the arguments under which objects were intended to be seen, whereas this cannot be counted on in connection with what artists do today. So without the explanation we have no way of knowing what we are looking at.

Sometimes, it must be admitted, the object is stronger than the work. I greatly admired, for example, a painting by Ingrid Calame, in reddish-pink enamel on a very large mylar sheet, cascading down the wall and then spreading out onto the floor. The forms themselves have the look of spilled and splashed pigment, impulsively swept onto the surface with brooms or wide brushes, in an Abstract Expressionist manner. This proves to be an illusion. The forms derive from tracings of “the lacy stains left by the evaporation of nameless liquids” which the artist found on Los Angeles streets. She has compiled an archive of these, noting the location of each stain and the date on which it was found. The forms are the result of careful transcription, rather than of impulsive expressive brushwork–and monumentalize pre-existing splotches. So we have to rethink our response to the object, which turns out to be far more intellectual and calculated than emotional and impulsive.

A comparable distance separates object from argument in Ghada Amer’s Untitled (John Rose). Her paintings look, the catalogue concedes, “like finely drawn, delicate abstractions.” The informed eye leads one to surmise that her work shows the influence of Cy Twombly. But as with Calame’s work, the eye is a very poor guide to what we in fact see. First, the lines are not drawn or painted but sewn. Second, the forms are not abstract but derived from images of women in pornographic magazines. One can, once instructed, see that these are stitchings, but I found it as difficult to make out that I was looking at “sexually suggestive postures” as I did to identify as female body parts–cut from the same genre of magazines–the things with which the Holy Virgin Mary is surrounded in Chris Ofili’s controversial painting from the Brooklyn “Sensation” show. In any case, Amer is making, by means of stitched prurient imagery, some statement about the representation of women. One would not know this without help. Aesthetics is almost consistently subverted in much of today’s art–especially when aesthetics seems initially to be the point of what we are looking at. That subversion is in the service of the larger moral meanings that the works are designed–with the help of explanation–to convey.

Sometimes explanation in fact intensifies the experience of the object. Consider a remarkable work by Paul Pfeiffer–a tiny (3-by-4 inch) video, set into a wall. At first glance it shows a black athlete, standing alone on a stadium floor, distantly surrounded by crowds of spectators. The athlete’s fists are held in front of him, and his head is bent back in what appears to be a shout, perhaps of victory. The film is a very short loop: The athlete endlessly advances, retreats, advances, retreats, advances, retreats. One could let it go at that, until one notices the title: Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon)–and one begins to wonder what they have done to that poor man. The artist began with a short clip from a video, showing an episode from a sporting event. He has modified this through digitalization, transforming it into something enough like a painting by Bacon to convert the shout into a scream. The whole scene becomes something resembling the lonely space of a Roman arena, in which someone has suffered or is undergoing suffering, for the entertainment of the prurient crowd. The endlessly repeated movement of the figure has the quality of a fantasy or a trauma, from which the mind cannot break free, enacting, over and over, the same charged happening. The work, repetitive and obsessive, has some of the qualities of the mental state it represents. And it is very successful in using technologies that may hardly have existed when the last Biennial took place–digitalization, DVD players–to present us with an image of which traditional art would have been incapable. It draws on art-historical images and historical imagination, and effects a metaphorical transformation of what in its own right is a fairly banal image from contemporary culture.

There is a lot of video in the Biennial, some of it more successful than others but all of it requiring an investment of real time on the viewer’s part with no real guarantee that there will be an artistic payoff comparable to that in Pfeiffer’s piece. No such reservation is in order with Shirin Neshat’s powerful video installation, Fervor, which lasts for eleven intense minutes. Many readers who expressed regret at not having been able to see her earlier masterpiece, Rapture, will be able to experience it at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City until mid-June, where it has a room to itself in the exhibition “Greater New York.” Rapture is enacted on two facing screens, respectively occupied by women wearing chadors and by men wearing neat white shirts and black pants. The two groups are engaged in parallel symbolic actions. There are again two screens in Fervor, this time set side by side. No individual stood out in Rapture–it was as if there were two choruses, as in a very ancient dramatic form, segregated by gender. In Fervor, two individuals–a Woman and a Man–stand out as characters. Unlike the other men, the Man stands out by the fact that he wears a suit. The Woman is in a chador, like the others. We first see Man and Woman approaching and passing each other on a rocky road. Each is clearly mindful of the Other. They soon join a crowd, to enter a place of assembly, in which the genders are separated by a black cloth partition. The groups are addressed by a man who appears to discourse on a somewhat primitive painting in the style of a Persian miniature, showing a prince with a falcon on his wrist and a lady with courtiers. The audience (congregation?) responds with chants–this must be the fervor to which the title refers–but Man and Woman, though they cannot see each other, are more involved with each other’s invisible presence than with what the Speaker says. At the same moment, each rises and leaves the building. We finally see them–and they again see each other–outside the building. They still do not overcome whatever separates them, though one is left with the hopeful sense that they will. The compelling, urgent music, sung and composed by the same singer as in Rapture–Sussan Deyhim–intensifies the feeling of the work, which by itself justifies a visit to the exhibition.

Neshat is one of the few widely known artists in Biennial 2000, as she is in “Greater New York.” Both exhibits include a handful of such figures, but for the most part, the artists selected are virtually unknown even to those fairly familiar with the art world today. This somewhat indemnifies the Biennial against the otherwise irrepressible critical complaints about who and what is left out. Both exhibitions are made up primarily of what the organizers of “Greater New York” call “evolving” artists–artists who are doing evolved work without as yet having attained an evolved reputation. P.S. 1, interested in seeing what was being done in the metropolitan area, issued an open call; 2,000 emerging artists submitted work, from which 140 artists were selected. Of course, it is not entirely a fair representation of art in greater New York, simply because the criteria of admission excluded evolved artists. This was not Biennial 2000’s policy, but it is its effect. Taken together, the two exhibitions give us a remarkable picture of what is being done in America today. It is astonishing, in view of the sullen suspiciousness toward art of which Hans Haacke’s work reminds us, how many artists are out there, engaged in making work of impressive ambition.

I have heard the complaint that Biennial 2000 gives us no sense of the direction of art today; but we might care to distinguish between the direction of art and directions in art. It is the mark of our moment that the direction of art is simply the aggregate of the directions of individual artists, taken one at a time. This means that most of the ways we thought critically about art in less pluralistic times are of little help today. We are as much on our own as the artists are, so each viewer has to be his or her own critic. I enormously enjoyed Josiah McElheny’s An Historical Anecdote About Fashion, which is a display of fictional glass. It is fictional in the sense that, though real enough and even brilliant as examples of contemporary glass blowing, it pretends to exemplify a set of objects made in an imaginary Venetian glass factory, executed in homage to Christian Dior’s “New Look” of 1947. The work combines art, craft and literature to create a work as philosophically arresting as it is visually stunning. But everything in the show, really, is rewarding if one takes the time to think it through.

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